Friday, Oct. 19, 2007 | A regional energy study released Thursday calls for a massive increase in San Diego’s reliance on solar power as a way to supplant the need for the Sunrise Powerlink, a $1.3 billion power line proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric.

The $30,000 report, which was funded by the San Diego Foundation and authored by local engineer and Sunrise critic Bill Powers, recommends developing a $1.5 billion San Diego Solar Initiative — akin to a statewide initiative currently underway.

While acknowledging that the renewable-energy plan was “ambitious,” Powers said it would help the region increase its energy independence, reduce climate-change inducing impacts from fossil-fuel generated electricity and eliminate the need for the Powerlink.

The 150-mile power line, which is currently under consideration by the California Public Utilities Commission, is described by SDG&E as a necessary way to connect San Diego to potential renewable energy projects in Imperial County. A decision on it is expected next summer.

Powers takes a different view of the region’s energy future. His report suggests using a $1.5 billion subsidy to develop what he calls the San Diego Solar Initiative, a 2,000-megawatt effort to blanket big buildings in the region with photovoltaic solar panels. That’s equal to more than three power plants’ worth of electricity, the amount the Powerlink could convey.

Achieving Powers’ vision would be difficult. Installing 2,000 megawatts of solar on large local buildings would be nothing short of revolutionary. The region currently gets about 30 megawatts of its energy from the sun — less than 1 percent.

The California Solar Initiative, an ongoing $3 billion subsidy that aims to develop 3,000 megawatts of solar across the state by 2017, has been hailed as a groundbreaking plan with the potential to jumpstart the United States’ burgeoning solar industry. Powers believes his proposed subsidy would be more cost-effective, because it would aim to blanket big commercial buildings, not small homes. The subsidy would aim to make installing solar an attractive option, but would not pay for all of the costs.

Under the California Solar Initiative, installing solar on a standard home costs about $27,000, Powers estimated.

With the report’s release, those on both sides argued that they were correct — and used large numbers in an attempt to prove it.

Powers said the Sunrise Powerlink would cost $7 billion over its 40-year life. SDG&E spokeswoman Christy Heiser said that figure ignored $5.6 billion in savings the line would generate.

Heiser said Powers’ solar plan would cost $12 billion to $20 billion to implement, based on California Energy Commission estimates. Powers said that ignored large subsidies, such as a 30 percent federal tax credit, which are designed to encourage solar development. State ratepayers would have to put up only the $1.5 billion subsidy — the San Diego Solar Initiative — to spur 2,000 megawatts of construction, Powers said.

Heiser said SDG&E encouraged Powers to submit his report to the California Public Utilities Commission, which will weigh Powerlink alternatives next year.

“Obviously we’re going to encourage a healthy debate,” Heiser said.

That debate doesn’t have any simple solutions. The region should focus on having a balanced portfolio of energy sources, said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Anders said. “Transmission isn’t a silver bullet, solar isn’t a silver bullet. You’ve got to have a little of all of this stuff. You’re going to need all of it.”

The San Diego Foundation did not commission the report, instead funding it through a grant to Protect Our Communities, a Sunrise opposition group.

“Our whole focus here at the foundation is about civic engagement and making sure everyone has good data and good information,” said Bob Kelly, the foundation’s president and CEO. “This fit in with that mission.”

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